from: Bruegmann, Robert. "L.A., the king of sprawl? Not at all," Los Angeles Times, 23 October 2005.
Robert Bruegmann, professor of architecture, art history and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the art history department, is the author of "Sprawl: A Compact History"
ON THE FIRST page of his widely read 1958 essay "Urban Sprawl," William H. Whyte Jr. described the view out the window of a plane flying from Los Angeles to San Bernardino as "an unnerving lesson in man's infinite ability to mess up his environment."
Whyte was a young editor at Fortune magazine, already famous for his groundbreaking 1956 study of suburbia, "The Organization Man." But in describing L.A., he was merely rehashing an old argument. For many academics and intellectuals living in apartment buildings in Boston and New York, L.A. represented everything that was wrong with cities. They complained that it was unplanned and incoherent, too dispersed and automobile dependent; it lacked a definite form or true center.
In short, it was devoid of what they considered real urbanity. It was sprawl. For more than 50 years (until just recently, when it has had to share the honors with Atlanta), Los Angeles has had the distinction of being the poster child for sprawl, a settlement pattern reputed to be economically inefficient, environmentally degrading, socially inequitable and aesthetically ugly.
But, in fact, Los Angeles is not a particularly good example of urban sprawl. Take the part about being unplanned. The truth is that New York, Chicago and most of the older American cities had their greatest growth before there was anything resembling real public planning; the most basic American land planning tool, zoning, did not come into widespread use until the 1920s.
L.A., by contrast, was one of the country's zoning pioneers. It has had most of its growth since the 1920s, during a period when planning was already important, and particularly since World War II, when California cities have been subject to more planning than cities virtually anywhere else in the country.
Then there is the part about how the city is too dispersed. Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile — by a fair margin the densest in the United States . . . .